The lobbyist shakedown blues

Last week, Willamette Week's Nigel Jaquiss reported on efforts to reform "pass-through" donations -- when a legislative candidate (usually a safe incumbent) donates money to another legislative candidate (usually a challenger or embattled incumbent).

In 2004, according to Janice Thompson of the Money in Action Research Project, individual legislative candidates passed through at least $2.1 million of the money they raised for their primary political committees—the committees that exist ostensibly for the purpose of getting them re-elected. ... The $2.1 million represents about 3 percent of all the campaign money raised in 2004.

Some campaign finance reform advocates don't like the practice because it makes it hard to trace the flow of funds from donors. Lobbyists don't like it because their money may go to support a candidate they don't necessarily support.

[Financial services and medical-industry lobbyist Jim] Markee says the client who provides the money often may not support the ultimate recipient. But lobbyists are reluctant to disappoint incumbents who solicit contributions and hold sway over their clients' interests.

House Bill 2597 would restrict "candidates from spending on other races or issues unless they form a second committee for that purpose," according to WW.

This week, a Willamette Week reader - Anne L. Potter of Portland - responded with a letter-to-the-editor calling WW on the carpet.

WW, You Know Better

Wow, lobbyists think that banning "pass-through" dollars from a candidate's committee to a colleague's campaign or to some other political committee is real campaign finance reform ["Shakedown Dues," WW, Feb. 28, 2007]? What a laugh. Real reform includes strict contribution limits, improved reporting, as well as restrictions on "bait and switch" transfers between PACs. But as a stand-alone item, "pass-through" limits are a mere drop in the reform bucket.

How could Willamette Week, who had the guts to endorse last November's ballot measures 46 and 47, get duped by lobbyists into thinking that big money players wanting to avoid shake-downs is genuine campaign finance reform?


  • JohnH (unverified)

    Opponents of Measures 46/47 promised real reform.

    They lied.

    Instead we get lame initiatives like bans on "pass throughs."

    Time for Democraps to recognize that voters passed Measure 47 and really do want comprehensive reform.

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    Um, JohnH, a bunch of Dems are against the pass-throughs bill. For example, Senate Majority Leader Kate Brown, quoted in WW, expressing her skepticism:

    Q: As chairwoman of the Rules Committee, you've committed to ethics reform, but what about pass-throughs? I do not believe we will touch pass-throughs. I don't believe we have the votes for it. Do I support it? I am willing to take a look at it. Q: That doesn't sound like much of a commitment. It's not all about money, guys! I have never had a complaint from a donor about how I spend my money. I will tell you the business community is very much in favor of a prohibition on pass-throughs, because that's how House Democrats got to the majority. They helped our members work together to help us get to the majority. I have no problem with more transparency. You could almost move to 24-hour reporting in the campaign finance arena. Q: But if you can't ban something as fundamental as pass-throughs, isn't it just so much rearranging of the deck chairs on ethics reform? I don't believe we are simply rearranging the deck chairs. Oregon's ethics laws are very gray, and we are working very hard to really be specific and make them consistent. Quarterly reporting is going to happen online. Right now you can't even access ethics reports online. We would prohibit lobbyists from bundling, so a number of meals, entertainment and travel they bought for legislators that went unreported will either be banned or will be reported. The other piece we're looking at is the revolving door. We will pass something that prohibits legislators from taking a lobbying position right after leaving the Legislature.
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    Um, Kari, what John H was saying is that prohibiting pass-throughs is a drop in the bucket. Your response shows that the Dems are not willing to enact even a drop in the bucket. Instead, they are rearrranging deck chairs by limiting lobbyist "gifts" while allowing the same lobbyists to provide the same gifts paid for by campaign contributions.

    BTW, Measure 47 bans all pass-throughs and requires candidates and committees to return to the State all campaign money left unspent after the election. The money is then dedicated to pay for the Voters' Pamphlet.

    The proposed time-out for legislators before they can lobby the Legislature is also "deck chairs." The corporations and unions have stables of lobbyists. They can easily have any new ones wait a year or two from the end of their terms in the Legislature.

  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)

    It's no surprise that Kate Brown likes the status quo. Republican or Democrat, much of the power of caucus leaders derives from their ability to disperse large amounts of campaign money to candidates of their party. now that the Dems are in the majority, it's fat time for the blue side of the aisle.

    Lobbyists give big bucks to leaders because they control the agenda. Sure, some of their clients may get miffed to see their money go to candidates they don't personally support, but the lobbyist is hired to get results, and pleasing legislative leaders is the way to get results.

    Banning pass-throughs might decentralize power among legislators somewhat, but it would not change the real power in the political process. It would remain money that matters.

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    Your response shows that the Dems are not willing to enact even a drop in the bucket.

    You mean "Kate Brown's response". I didn't express an opinion. And if I did, I wouldn't be speaking for the Dems. I'm not some all-powerful svengali.

  • Chris Matson (unverified)

    I make my living running political campaigns, so you would think I support pass-throughs. More money, right?


    For far too long Democratic campaigns have relied on the sheer weight of contributions and spending to compensate for the lack of a coherent message or candidates who take solid positions. Most stratiegists push the "don't take a position until we've polled it or focus grouped it to death, and then (and only then) take the 'generic' position."

    So instead of meaningful campaigns that engage the voter, we get mudslinging, character assasinations and dumbed down messaging...rice cakes instead of solid food. No wonder people lose interest in elections.

    While it is true that politics is more an art than a science (i.e. developing a creative message), spending money is quantifiable. Yes, believe it or not, there is a mathematical formula for calculating how much money you need to spend to "win" an election. And folks, it ain't anywhere near what we spend on our targeted races.

    But because there are so many consultants, pollsters, marketing directors, outreach coordinators, et. al. out there (and yet, so few good ones), they all manage to con and hoodwink our coordinated campaign directors into spending money in astronomical sums that go way beyond what any first-year economics or marketing major would clearly recognize as "diminishing returns."

    Like the obese kids who can't eat enough twinkies, we have become obese with spending. More, more, more.

    And like those twinkies, what we buy is empty calories.

    In a recent survey of the 2006 election overall Democratic voter effort in legislative races was down 3% to 5% statewide. If there was a disatisfaction with Republican leadership in the Oregon Legislature, it was not seen in the Democratic effort regardless of the viability of the race. In the two contested House and one contested Senate seats Democrats won or held onto in Lane County, democratic performance was short by 2.3%, 4.5% and 5.1% respectively. Although we won them, that's still well below what Democrats should have won by (and in fact, what Democrats have historically won by).

    Contrast that to the relatively few Democratic races where the candidate took a solid stand and a specific message, i.e. "here is what I believe should happen and here is how we pay for it," candidates perfomed 3% to 8% above the average Democratic effort (and in the case of one race in Lane County the Democrat won by 13.5% above normal Democratic performance...a record for that district in which a Republican was on the ticket).

    Statewide we almost won three of 'em. All on a shoestring, too. Imagine that!

    I cut my teeth on local, issue-based campaigns. You know, the kind where money is a rare commodity. My polling was door-to-door, refining the message by the end of the block. My focus group cost a round of beers at the local Democratic working-class watering hole. My record is 21 wins, 2 losses...better than any of the party consultants. I teach this stuff to candidates and managers who want to win but aren't given the kind of resources the big boys get...and they win anyway. I make a good living.

    So yeah, I'm all for ending the subsidies to consultants who only want to grow the pie at a rate that outpaces medical costs and the stock market...well beyond spending that resembles obsenity. Ending pass-throughs will do it.

    Works for me.

  • JohnH (unverified)

    If I understand Chris Matson correctly, the source of the biggest "pass throughs" are the political parties, which unfortunately are generally undemocratic organizations closely held by insiders. Once the party gets the bucks, they enforce their "ideology" on the candidates, or in the case of the Democraps, totally bland positions, designed to position themselves as the lesser of two evils.

    Being from Lane County, I can attest to what Chris says. Vicki Walker was the "not Bush" candidate, and Nancy Nathanson barely made an effort to let voters know what her positions were.

    It would be extremely refreshing if candidates had to talk to voters to raise money, instead of depending on corrupting monied interests and their "pass through" money laundering operations, the political parties. Then issues of interest to voters might actually get addressed by the legislature.

    Ending the "pass throughs" will just force the monied interests to send more through their money launderers, giving them more power, or force them to write more checks to individual candidates to guarantee their investments.

    Comprehensive reform is what's needed.

  • Ron Buel (unverified)

    Kari: let me THANK YOU for highlighting this issue on Blue Oregon. Yes, pass throughs are only a small problem in the campaign finance reform pantheon of issues. But, you have hit the nail on the head in a philosophical way -- you are pointing out that the party in power, at this time the Ds, is not really interested in reform. Thanks for getting Blue Oregon out front. As I am sure you know, Republicans and Independents voted for campaign finance reform more than Democrats did in this last election cycle. Yet, as you also know, Republicans outspent Democrats 2-1 in the legislative and statewide races, spending most of their money on their slime machine in the swing districts. What's wrong with this picture?
    And who is this Chris Matson guy? What a great piece he wrote.
    Good job of starting this thread, Kari. Don't let Dan and Tom and the others (who happen to be right on this issue IMHO) paint you into the Democratic Establishment. Your journalistic instincts are primary, and in this case they were right, and that's what makes Blue Oregon a great blog spot. Keep it up.

  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)

    Ron Buel asked:

    "What's wrong with this picture?"

    It would be easy to suggest that Democrats' support of a funding system that puts them at near perpetual disadvantage is the result of battered-party syndrome, that Democrats have adopted the patterns of their abuse. But I think a more straight forward answer is quite serviceable here:

    The large campaign funders who control the agenda within government also control the agenda about government. If the groups that finance Democratic candidates don't support real campaign finance reform [of course they don't], then active Democrats will not support it either. Like pet dogs, they will bark about reform, but like those dogs, they will grow quiet when their leash is tugged hard enough.

    Business interests let the unions and social groups do their dirty work in the anti-Fair Elections measure campaign. Polling showed that Democratic voters were the key to defeating campaign finance reform, and it was Democratic voters who were targeted by the NO campaign. Democratic leaders and elected officials, some known as strong supporters of CFR, were more than happy to help out the effort.

    Let's not forget the importance of Democratic political professionals in this calculus. They are happy to support reform that puts more money onto the system - such as public campaign financing - but hate with a passion anything that restricts contributions and, therefore, their earning prospects. That, of course, is to be expected; expected, at least, by anyone willing to think seriously about the likely motivations of those taking political stands. In the past election campaign there were many progressive activists not willing to do that serious thinking. They were mislead.

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    Let's not forget the importance of Democratic political professionals in this calculus. They are happy to support reform that puts more money onto the system - such as public campaign financing - but hate with a passion anything that restricts contributions and, therefore, their earning prospects.

    There were quite a few of us that supported Portland's clean money campaign finance reform... which, though a public funding system, dramatically reduced the amount of money in the system.

  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)


    As I wrote above, political professionals on the progressive side don't mind campaign finance reform like Clean Money systems that add to the funding pot. They don't like systems that restrict the flow of money into campaigns.

    I don't mean to scold you and other political pros with this. I'm far too jaded to expect people to act against their own financial interests. My scolding is aimed at my fellow amateur activists who are gullible enough to expect their professional allies to act against their own financial interests.

  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)

    Portland's Clean Money system can be expected to INCREASE the amount of money in campaigns over time, as more prospective candidates learn to use it. And, of course, there is no prohibition on candiates going the traditional route and taking and spending big contributions from the usual suspects. The first few rounds under Clean Money do not indicate how the system will work long-term [if it survives long-term, that is].

  • (Show?)

    Somehow, I missed your response here Tom. It's pretty crystal clear that Portland's Clean Money system will REDUCE the amount of money.

    It caps spending at $150,000 for those who participate and creates a massive disincentive for others to go over that amount.

    I agree that we have to wait to see how things shake out, but I'm willing to bet pitcher of beer on the increase/reduce question, if you're game.

  • Tom Civiletti (unverified)
    <h2>You're on, Kari, but only local microbrew, OK?</h2>
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